Thursday, January 12, 2012

Home is Where the Heart Is

Me with a handful of my students after the Prizegiving ceremony.

It has been a month and two days since I boarded the plane leaving Samoa and headed home. Every day I have thought to myself, “I should really write that final blog entry,” yet self denial of the finality of my time as a Peace Corps volunteer prevented me from sitting down and concluding this twenty-seven month blog. Even today, I find myself at a loss for words. How does one summarize twenty-seven months of service? And how do I capture the lessons learned? The beautiful thing is that this blog has already captured so many of those memories and experiences.

Coming home, I expected more culture shock. I thought that I would be overwhelmed by speeding cars, technology, supermarkets, and of course, the mall at Christmastime. But when it came down to it, coming home felt more like waking from one dream to begin a new one. You might say I eased my transition a bit by road tripping through New Zealand for 16 days before coming back to New York, and maybe that is the reason I was not so overwhelmed by American life. I had anticipated a fear of driving, yet that has not been the case at all. I have been driving every day, and even took a few trips into Manhattan already! I have upgraded my Samoan monochrome cellphone to the iPhone (4s) and am LOVING the apps, games, and easy flow of information. I miss being able to throw my rubbish (oops, trash!) out my back door, but I am appreciative of the regular garbage collection, recycling collection, and composting going on here. And I cannot stress enough how amazing it has been to come home to a snow-less winter! My tan is still holding true, and I still wear my jandals around the house (so weird to wear shoes inside!) but for the most part, I am embracing boot fashion, jeans, and bubble jackets. I have seen Phish twice, Mamma Mia on Broadway, celebrated my birthday in a posh NYC nightclub, eaten pizza, sushi, bagels, and wings, and have visited the Jersey Shore. I have made cookies in an oven and washed clothes in a washing machine. And I have stopped float-testing all eggs before consumption. I have also put away all fans and embraced indoor heating.

Job-wise, I am not sure what is next. I have picked up two part time jobs from my past: dog walking (yes, dogs are friendly here!), and I will soon start working the front desk at the Rockland Conservatory of Music, now in their new location. I am slowly readjusting to the strange sensation of living in my parents’ full house once again, but I am savoring the moments we all have together and am happy to have arrived home when I did.

In a way, I now feel that I have two homes: Skyview, and Samalaeulu. I find myself missing my village and Samoan life to the point where it literally hurts my heart, yet tears do not come to me when I think of leaving. Instead, I feel gratitude for the two years I was fortunate enough to spend living in such a loving village in the South Pacific. The friends I made there and students I taught feel like a family, and thanks to technology, I have been able to stay in touch with many of them; one students, unaware of the time difference, has been calling the house at 3am in the morning! I do not know when I will return to Samoa, yet I do know that when I do, it will not be the same as my two years spent as a Pisikoa. However, the experiences shared there will forever remain in my heart. I am a proud Returned Peace Corps Volunteer! Today, the 960 photos I selected out of thousands should arrive and I will be able to relive my 27 months as a volunteer as I create my largest scrapbook to date.

This concludes my blog…. until the next adventure :)

Kicking the Cat

... It seems I forgot to post this back in November, so enjoy!
Pulega and I at Culture Day in Sasina.

With the end of service so near, many families have been inviting me over for dinner as a final farewell. It has been a great way to spend some quality time with those families that have become such an important part of my life. Last week, I ate with two families, this week I have plans with another three. My first dinner last week was with Pulega’s family, and it was as comical as ever.

Pulega has a large presence. He is very fat and a flamboyant fafafine who lives with his sisters family. He is also Ali’s principal. Ali and I often joke about the two sides of Pulega. She knows him as a firm and demanding teacher, who always wears a pristine floral shirt and ie’konga (black wrap around skirt - - - business-wear for Samoan men.) For me however, I know him only as a friend in the village – a laughing, joking, shirtless man, who has a cat and two dogs. Which brings us to the brief yet somewhat horrible (and hilarious!) story of the cat.

I showed up for diner just before sa, or evening prayer, was to begin. The sun was setting and short bursts of heavy rain were blowing through the village. I sat with Pulega in the large open fale that makes up his home, while behind the house, Pulega’s sister and children busied themselves preparing our feast in the fale kuka (cooking house.) The rain was really picking up, so I helped Pulega to lower the tarps, creating instant makesift walls surrounding the fale. The sound of the rain beating down was immense, and for half a moment I worried that the river might come, thus cutting me off from my home on the other side. I quickly brushed the worry aside, knowing full well I would have a place to stay if that was to happen. Pulega’s cat, which he affectively calls Pusi (meaning cat), crept under the tarp to avoid the rain with us. It was clear that she knew meal time was approaching and lurked closely around Pulega’s chair. He spoke to it, pet it, and showed affection towards it. And then the meal came. Pulega transformed from a loving pet owner into a ravenous territorial man almost instantaneously. The formerly loved cat looked up with begging eyes for a scrap or two and “Whack!” Pulega kicked him in the side. I was so startled I almost couldn’t eat! Then, with bravery and perhaps a bit of stupidity, the cat continued to beg with a similar outcome every time. Finally Pulega had had enough. He called over a child, who picked up the cat, and through it out of the house. The routine continued for the whole meal, and although it sounds terrible in writing, the kicking and throwing never seemed over the top animal abuse – more just comical. When Pulega wasn’t looking, I slipped the cat some chicken bones.

At the end of the meal, I was walked home by Pea (Pulegas sister) and her two children. Senara, the eldest child, held a beach umbrella sized umbrella for the three of us to walk under. Jason, to the horror of his mother bounced a ball, and she kept hissing at him “Aua! Sa!” apparently afraid of attracting the attention of ghosts with his noise at night. I walked in the middle of the three of them. Pea held my hand, as we walked home, and although it felt unnatural to be walking holding this motherly womans’ hand, I just went with it. It is common in Samoa to see two grown men walking down the street holding hands, or two girls holding hands while walking to church. As awkward as it felt, there was something really touching about the moment. I will miss Pulega, Pea, Senara, and Jason. I hope our paths will cross again one day, as they have so generously included me in their family for the past two years. Tofa soifu lo’u aiga!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tattoo, Take Two!

My first tattoo was made by the Suluape Family in Apia back in February of this year. Tattoos are a Samoan tradition and great meanings are held in the design and placement of every symbol. Traditional Samoan tattoos have been such a part of Samoan heritage and culture that they have been around for hundreds of years. As a result, the Samoans have a very different method of tattooing than we are accustomed to in the West.

Naturally, in the spirit of Samoan culture, I wanted my tattoo to be done in the traditional style using the traditional tools. However, this was not possible for my first one, as its designs were too curvy and detailed. Once again, Anna provided the necessary means to get things done that I have been putting off.

Inspired by her travels, Anna decided that she wanted to get a tattoo before leaving as a constant reminder of her time abroad. Finding herself in Samoa for her last country, it seemed a fitting time and place to do it, especially with the cultural significance. Early in the week I encouraged her to really think about what she would want. Over her week here, she saw many tattoos, and she soon decided on what she would get. The traditional womans tattoo, called the Malu, is located on the thigh area and extends down past the knee. One of the symbols used is a star, signifying “Navigation.” After two months of travel, what better symbol could she have decided on?

We went to the tattoo parlor together on a rainy Saturday, and as often happens when one is sitting in a tattoo shop, I got inspired to stop the tautalatala (too much talk), and finally get my foot tattoo that I had been dreaming of. Since my first tattoo had been done with the gun, this time I opted for the traditional “tap-tap” method.

Unfortunately, my design could not be done all with the tap-tap because the flower in the middle was too curvy, so my tattoo was done in two stages. Part one was the flower, made by the gun, and the rest of the designs were done with the pillow, stick, razor, and tapping. All in all, I was surprised to say that the tap-tap did not hurt nearly as much as the gun. Maybe it was the style of the design or the placement, but I found the tapping almost soothing, and the pain totally bearable.

Although I cannot predict the future, I think I am done with tattoos for the time being. I have two great designs to last me a lifetime, and to top it off, they were done in a country I now consider a second home by people I now consider friends. I hope that my tattoos will serve as a daily reminder of the people I met, the experiences I had, and the lessons I learned, while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Western Samoa.

Halloween in Apia

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. I love creating characters and for one night pretending to be someone or something that I am not. Usually I envision lavish costume ideas that never come to fruition. However, this year, my idea was too good to sit on, and months away from Halloween, I began the preparations. After attending the Magic Circus of Samoa back in February and witnessing the impressive 4-legged man act, there was no question as to what I would be: the 4-legged lady soon materialized in my head, along with all the ways to make it happen.
In true magician form I cannot reveal how I was about to grow two extra legs for the big event, but on the night of the Halloween celebrations, I had transformed from a Peace Corps Volunteer into a fat, four-legged Samoan lady. The costume along with some rehearsed dance moves won me a slot as one of the best costumes of the evening.
The count down has begun for next years Halloween, but if my magical abilities hold true, who knows what will happen next?!

Halloween in the Village

This year I was lucky enough to celebrate two Halloweens, one in the village and one in Apia. The Apia story will be told shortly, but this blog will focus on the one in the village.

A week before Halloween, Anna arrived for her week-long visit! It was so exciting to see her and to catch up, as she had been traveling through South East Asia and had many fascinating stories to tell. Since she had been on the move so much, we decided that it would be a nice change to just stay put and let her experience the daily life of a Peace Corps volunteer. So after a night in Apia, we made our way back to the village and the fun began!

In anticipation of Anna’s visit, I had planned a fun filled week of Halloween activities. Unfortunately, I had not counted on the teachers springing surprise exams on the students, so my first two days of activities were removed. However, with Anna’s help, we kicked things into gear on Wednesday with a mask-making day in the lower levels. When Thursday came around, we did pumpkin carving with the upper levels, and had the students in Year 6 paint faces onto eggplants. Friday was the final celebration, filled with candy (Thanks Ilovea!), trick-or-treating, and a costume contest.

Overall, it was a great success. Anna’s trip deserves it’s own blog and I hope to find the time to get that up before leaving because it was a real treat to have her here, and we did so much!

Craving [CAVING!] for Pizza!

One great thing about having a visitor is that it gives you the excuse to do everything you always wanted to do but never justified finding time for. Anna had told me all about her adventures riding elephants and paddling through floating villages, so I felt the pressure to impress her with Samoa’s natural wonders. Flipping through the tourist pamphlets I have acquired over the past few years, one activity sprung out at me: Dwarfs Cave.

The history of Dwarfs Cave is a bit unclear, and it seems that every person who goes there will be told a slightly different tale as to its past. From what we gathered, Dwarfs Cave is really an expansive lava-tube, formed during the 1904-1911 eruption. The legend states that since it is so long, no person has ever been to the end of it. At one time or other, it is believed that 30 “Eskimos,” lived in this underground layer, feasting at the impressive flat table located just a few minutes inside the cave and bathing in its natural, muddy pools. Although a believable story from the size of the cave, there seems to be no evidence of humans ever having lived in the space.

On a Tuesday afternoon, Anna and I, along with two of my top students Pisi and Sapi, met up with two of the other Peace Corps Ali and Jenny, to check out the cave. Our “tour guide” (some man from the village), dubbed himself the cave man, and led the way through the cave, making sure we got as dirty as possible along the way. The caves have no light, neither natural or brought in, so it was up to us to carry flashlights to guide us on our journey. This proved a bit challenging as the path led us up and down step inclines of muddy rock and through pools waist deep of silt and mud. However we endured and made it to the farthest pool before turning back for the adventure out.

Having just finished reading The Hobbit (in anticipation of the movie release!), I found myself looking around for Gollum, as this cave could easily have been his home. I hope Peter Jackson was able to make the trip out here before filming those scenes! There was not much life down in the caves, other than a few bats. Probably the scariest part of the adventure was shining the flashlight onto the walls of the cave and noticing the large cracks, assumedly formed from recent earthquake activity. I am glad to say we made it out alive, a little bruised and beaten, but overall successful in our exploration.

To celebrate, Anna and I took the girls out for pizza at the local pizzerias (Sekia Pizza). It was a great field trip and I am so glad that we found the time to tackle this cool site. For anyone planning a trip to Samoa, Dwarfs Caves are a must!

Lord of the Rings

Over the past month of school, I have become a champion crafter. Due to lack of activity in the classrooms following the Year 8 National exam, I found myself spending my days in a corner of the Year 8 classroom learning how to weave with the rest of the Year 8 girls. At first it was tricky. My fingers did not want to cooperate with the fine strands of the la’au fala leaves and instead of making mat shapes, I was making long belt-like creations. Then one day, one of my girls made me a ring, and the course of my days were hanged forever. Stubbornly, I did not want to ask for help, so I sat at my desk trying to figure out just how she had done it. After a day of failed attempts, I gave in to my desire to know and asked for assistance. After a 5 minute lesson, I was weaving rings! I started simple, with one color, but soon needed to expand my artistic abilities to incorporate multi-colors into the jewelry. Three days later I have created a small store worth of jewelry. Rings of every shape, size, and color hang from a string in my room, and my arms are adorned with bracelets. I even found the time to create a few headbands, necklaces, and belts. With the jewelry mastered and just a few weeks left in the village, the time has come to embark on my last great weaving challenge: the mat. Only time will tell if I can pull it off in time!